A simple trick could help you avoid the negative health implications of sitting all day, according to a study
Human beings are not built to sit on their butts all day. Running through the woods, yes. Climbing trees, yes. Sitting in front of computer screens, definitely not. Yet billions of us do it at least five days a week, dictated as we are by Western work patterns.
The health implications are considerable. Studies suggest that people who sit for prolonged periods are at increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Even daily bursts of exercise, while welcome, aren’t necessarily a panacea for long periods at the desk.
Research on the subject is patchy, with the UK NHS acknowledging that “there is insufficient evidence to set a time limit on how long people should sit each day.”
Academics at Columbia University in the US seek to address this research gap. Led by Keith Diaz, an associate professor of behavioral medicine, they sought to discover how to mitigate the risks of sitting all day without having to do anything drastic like quitting work.
It is true that there was a small study. Only 11 adults participated. Each was asked to sit in a lab for eight hours, which represents a typical workday, over the course of five days. On one of those days, the participants sat down all day and got up only to go to the bathroom. In the others, Diaz and his team tried a number of different walking strategies to break up the session.
“Our goal was to find the least amount of walking one could do to offset the detrimental health effects of sitting,” Diaz wrote in a blog post for The Conversation. “In particular, we measured changes in blood sugar levels and blood pressure, two important risk factors for heart disease.”
Sitting all day is linked to chronic health conditions, such as heart disease. Image: Israel Andrade
According to their findings, a brisk five-minute walk every half hour was the only strategy that significantly lowered blood sugar levels, reducing the post-meal blood sugar spike by nearly 60 percent compared to sitting.
During the study, the researchers also asked the participants to rate their mental state using a questionnaire.
“We found that, compared to sitting all day, a brisk five-minute walk every half hour reduced feelings of fatigue, put participants in a better mood, and helped them feel more energized,” he wrote. “We also found that even walking just once an hour was enough to improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue.”
Our goal was to find the minimum amount of walking one could do to offset the detrimental health effects of sitting.
More research is needed, but the results are in line with advice from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive, which recommends “short breaks frequently, rather than longer breaks less frequently.” He suggests five to 10 minutes every hour.
Díaz and his colleagues are now testing other strategies to offset the health damage of prolonged sitting, targeting people who simply can’t get out of their seats, such as taxi drivers.
“Finding alternative strategies that produce comparable results can provide the public with several different options and ultimately allow people to choose the strategy that best suits them and their lifestyle,” Diaz said.
Lead image: Christin Hume